Thursday, December 31, 2015

Something From Nothing

I have gotten rather used to this.  Having taught for fifteen years in various higher education institutions in both Ethiopia and Kenya, I’ve come to expect (based on experience) that there will be at least one course that I’m supposed to teach that I have either not taught before (or even taken before) or that at some point during the week before the new term starts I’m informed that I’m actually not meant to teach the course I’ve been asked to teach but another one (which may or may not be one I’ve ever taught before).  My blood pressure used to go up at this point in the year, wondering how I was ever going to come up with the new course along with the 4+ others on my plate to teach.  Now I’ve come to realize that this is just the way things are, and that all of my colleagues are going through the same set of unnatural yoga positions as we all try to prepare for a new term.

So it comes as no surprise that this coming term is proving no exception.  About two weeks ago I was assigned to teach a course for our Masters program, a ‘modular’ intensive course that packs half a semester (20 hours of class time) into two weeks now and two weeks later.  The course was called ‘Christian Doctrines and African Christianity’.  I confess to not having a clue as to what that meant.  Fortunately, one of my colleagues had taught it before and was interested in trading the course he had been assigned, ‘Theology and Society’, with mine.  Given that I was having difficulty figuring out what to do with ‘Christian Doctrines and African Christianity’, I gladly gave it up and took custody of ‘Theology and Society’.

During this time, our university shut down for the holidays and won’t reopen until January 4.  This has been a problem because now I couldn’t go to the proper office and get ahold of a course description to see how this course has been taught before.  Moreover, with no library available, I couldn’t track down what if any resources might be available for me, much less my students, to figure out what ‘Theology and Society’ might be about.  So I have been left to my own devices, which is never an optimum outcome.

Searching online for other variations of ‘Theology and Society’ that have been offered at other institutions around the world, I made the rather alarming discovery that this is not a course that has been taught.  I found one Masters program at one college in ‘Theology and Society’.  But in terms of relevant books and articles that might serve as an introduction to (me and) my students, um, nothing.  Instead, I found several unhelpfully vague descriptions of how theology ought to engage in society (all in that sickly interdenominational theology-speak that manages to string together a lot of important-sounding words that actually mean nothing).  I walked away from my searches more convinced than ever that if this is the best we Christians can do in our engagement with the real world in which we find ourselves, no wonder we are marginalized and in trouble.

I then came up with the brilliant idea of sending an email to all my theology faculty colleagues asking their help to come up with a course description (an idea that would have been even more brilliant had I come up with it two weeks ago).  To my delight, one of my colleagues came through.  I now have the official course description.  But, Lord have mercy, I don’t think one could try and make a course description more unhelpful.

Let me see if I can explain.  The course purpose reads thusly:

To critically evaluate religious ideas and motivations which underlie the social, religious and cultural phenomena of public life, as well as examine how theology interacts with issues of contemporary concerns with special reference to how faith influences such issues and in turn how the issues impact theological orientation and education.

OK, I think I get what this purpose is trying to say.  But it is not being said with much clarity, nor is it making me want to jump up and sign up for such a life-changing educational opportunity.

The course content actually reads like Frankenstein’s monster:

Definitions (introductory matters); Theology and other disciplines (especially philosophy and science); place and task of theology; Social Justice and empowerment; faith and public policy; power and politics; place of faith in contemporary society; church and state relations; theories and practice in doctrines; God and public morality; ecclesial structures (African church governments); pluralism and unity; secularism and globalization

Yes and let’s just throw in ‘pluralism and unity; secularism and globalization’ for good measure.  It reminds me of the gobbledygook I often-times come across coming out of institutions of a particular theological persuasion that, cut adrift from any meaningful engagement with historical Christianity, seem to delight in turning recognizable Christianity on its head using language that sounds so utterly profound but on examination is simply vapid.

Substitute 'course description' for 'sermon'

The last ‘Oh Jeez’ from my perusal of my upcoming course’s course description was a look at its course bibliography.  The required reading is as follows:

Stott, John; Issues Facing Christianity Today: A Major Appraisal of contemporary Social and Moral Questions, London: Marshall Morgan and Scott 1984.
Pool, Jeff B., Ed. Through the Tempest: Theological Voyages in a Pluralistic Culture; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1991.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like John Stott and benefitted greatly from reading his exegetical works.  But this work by Stott (who BTW died a number of years ago and who presumably is no longer interested in engaging theologically with society) came out in 1984 – 1984! I was not long out of university and a staff-member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in 1984.  My 27 year old daughter was not yet born in 1984.   A lot of water has gone under my bridge since then in my life, and I can only assume that the same is true for the rest of global society. As to Mr. Pool’s book, I have no reason to doubt that it is a worthy contribution to the discussion, but it’s a discussion that was taking place in 1991, not 2016.  In the remaining 9 texts in the recommended reading section of my course description, the most recent is from 2005.  The rest are from the 1980s and 90s.  The course (as I understand it) is meant to be about theology today, not historical theology.

I used to think I was facing challenges as a teacher of theology in what is one of the better Christian universities in Kenya, and that the problem was somehow me and my shortcomings as a teacher.  But now I’m realizing that we, my fellow faculty, indeed my entire institution, are the ones together facing what seem to be insurmountable challenges.  It is a difficult thing to teach, even when you have a classroom full of resources and a library that’s up to date.  But when one doesn’t have the stuff or the resources or the books or the articles and has just oneself and maybe a laptop – I hope you can get the picture of what a challenge education, much less higher education, is in such a context.

So this is my task – come up with a Masters-level course, by Monday.  And then teach 20 hours of it during the first two weeks of January.  All the while picking back up with my 5 courses at the diploma-level seminary which starts back up on Monday as well.

Ok, writing a blog about this hasn’t helped me make any progress in redesigning a course on ‘Theology and Society’, but talking about it has certainly been therapeutic.

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